The Technium

Cloud Culture

[Translations: Japanese]

While there is only One Machine, there are many cloud computers. Each is a collective of computers acting as one computer. The Machine is the mega-cloud of all clouds. In a cloud world, all your work and data are stored on the web. For daily routines you are usually connected. Your devices are primarily gateways to the cloud.  You do all your work on the web, using web-based applications.  Common web apps are hosted email, Google Docs and Calendar, Facebook, Flickr, and most social network sites. Most importantly clouds should be invisible. You should not be aware that your music, or term papers, or shopping cart is stored on a distributed server farm. It should feel like all this info and activity is on your pod.


In fact, that is apparently what happens. According the just-released Pew Internet & American Life Project report on Use of Cloud Computing (PDF), two thirds of Americans online use cloud applications, even though very few of us are aware of it.

Sixty nine percent of online Americans use cloud computing in some form, with the largest usage seen for webmail (56 percent of respondents) and personal photo storage (34 percent).

It is easy to imagine moving a lot more of our informational activities to the cloud. If we migrate entirely to the cloud, what will life on the cloud feel like? How will our behavior change if this migration really is as invisible as it is suppose to be? How will cloudiness change us?

Right now clouds are chiefly created and run for the benefit of enterprise, rather than users. Or to be more exact, the initial customers of cloud computing are businesses. Firms serving up web services. Cloud computing is also known as grid computing and utility computing. There is a small industry of providers, suppliers and makers of applications emerging. Besides the well known clouds of Google, Amazon Web Services, there is also GridLayer, and Aptana Cloud, From the marketing page of Aptana Cloud comes this fairly utilitarian description of cloud computing from the enterprise POV:


Rather than worrying about where to host your web sites, how to configure your web server, and how to set up additional services, the Cloud enables you to push all of these concerns and worries to someone else, and more importantly, somewhere else. It’s all handled for you on the internet, dynamically and completely managed. In short, all of your technology needs on the back-end are handled for you as a service, much like your electric or phone bill. 

That’s the mechanics on the back side. What about us? What is the culture of cloudiness? My hunch (which I cannot prove yet) is that the consequences of going from the web to the cloud will exceed the changes we saw going onto the web originally.  I’ve teased out some cultural dynamics I think will prevail in a cloudy world:

Always On. Constant connection makes the “on” invisible. We do nothing to connect since it is now the default. It is like air. As behavior economists have shown, defaults make huge differences. The on default biases us toward connection and sharing. The always on default biases us toward expecting everything to be connected and always on. We expect all agents should always be on. All services should always be available. The drive toward 24/7 availability for everything continues. Not being always on is a disadvantage (with some exceptions). Always on also means more of our lives are captured, analyzed, digested, and “on”. The more the cloud is always on, the more of our self is moved into the cloud.

Omnigenous. The distinction between being on the cloud and off disappears as more of the world is included. In the beginning the cloud is the cloud of servers, then it becomes the cloud of servers and all our laptops, and then it includes all those plus all our mobile phones and then all our TV screens as well. As the cloud keeps improving “network effects” kick in and those improvements draw in more devices, more sensors, more chips, making it even more attractive, until the cloud is omnigenous and includes every kind of thing. Cameras, microphones — anything producing data will shift toward the cloud. So the cloud is the first place we go to for whatever we want. We may not always find it there, but it will always be the place we begin.

More Smarter. Clouds don’t have to be smarter than the web we have now, but they are likely to be.  The web can be thought of hyperlinked documents. The  clouds can be thought of as hyper-linked data. Ultimately the chief reason to put things onto the cloud is to share their data deeply.  Not just to have a convenient backup, or to have always on access, which the cloud WILL give, but to be able to weave together the data and interactivity of the parts, and thereby make all the pieces much smarter and more powerful than they could possibly be alone.  It is not too much of an exaggeration to think of the cloud as the tool which allows us to share the elemental aspects of our data and activities in a way makes them smarter. The cloud is sort of a hivemind tool.

Inseparable Dependence. “Always on” plus superior performance will lead to supreme dependence on our part. There is the curious paradox that as the hard-lifting computation leaves the devices near our bodies and takes place in the invisible cloud it psychologically moves the device closer to us. As devices get smarter they get more intimate. A friend of mine had to ground their teenager for a serious infraction. They took her cell phone away. They were horrified when she became physically ill. It was almost as if she had an amputation. And she had in one sense. I was reminded of the book/movie The Golden Compass wherein the children in that world have spiritual guardian animals, called demons. These intangible animals sit on their shoulders or hover nearby and advise and comfort them. The most horrible torture in this world is to be separated from your demon. In the future, the cloud and cloud intelligence will be our Golden Compass demons. Separation from the advice and comfort afforded by the cloud will be horrendous and unbearable.

Extreme Reliability. No machine (or body) is perfect, but clouds will be more reliable than your standalone computer. The number of outage incidents recorded for clouds is fairly small given the total number of access-hours they provide.  According to the Cloud Computing Incident Database there have been 11 reported incidents in 2008. My very stable Mac has frozen more times than that this year. The reliability index for the cloud will mean it will increasingly be seen as the Backup. Our life’s backup. No matter how many copies of something important you have offline, it won’t feel safe until you put it online, on the cloud. We may also feel that if it is only on the cloud, it is not safe, but the reliability of the cloud will likely trump our own reliability. The consensus reliability of Wikipedia is changing our attitudes about where trust lies. In cloud life we may come to trust the aggregation of all sources over any single source.

The Extended Self. Where is my stuff? If I google my own mail to find out what I said, or rely on the cloud for my memory, where do “I” end and it starts? If all the images of my life, and all the snippets of interest, and all my notes, and all my chitchat with friends, and all my choices, and all my recommendations, and all my thoughts, and all my wishes — if all this is sitting somewhere — but nowhere in particular — it changes how I think of myself. What happens if it were to go away? A very distributed aspect of me would go away. If McLuhan is right that tools are extensions of our selves — a wheel an extended leg, a camera an extended eye — than the cloud is our extended soul.  Or, if you prefer, our extended self.

Legal Conflict. The war over copyright will seem tame compared to the legal battles that the life in the cloud will hatch. Who’s laws will prevail? The laws of your domicile, the laws of your server’s domicile, or the laws of international exchange? Who gets your taxes if all the work is being done in the cloud? The transparent discontinuity between legal regimes will be a threat to the expansion of the cloud.  This friction will also force the growth of multiple clouds. Clouds with varying legal frameworks will compete at the global level, although within many geographical regions, there may be little choice. But the legal issues are not merely international. Who owns the data, you or the cloud? If all your email and voice calls go through the cloud, who is responsible for what it says? In the new intimacy of the cloud, when you have half-baked thoughts, weird daydreams, should they not be treated differently than what you really believe? What are the rights (and duties) of government’s attempt at justice and fairness in an always on, omni cloud.

SharePrivacy. Privacy is over. Or more precisely, privacy as we imagined it is over. The extended self requires a different finesse for grappling with the levels of intimacy humans need. The binary functions of public/private, or even friend/not friend have to yield to more nuanced, more complex ways to describe our relationships. The Chinese have a unique name for every type of cousin (younger than you, older than you, your mom’s brother, your dad’s sister’s son, etc.); the cloud will breed distinct ways of relating to agents we know, agents we once knew, agents we know we don’t know, and so on. Sharing is the foundational action on the cloud. Some types of sharing will come to resemble what we used to call privacy.  It is impossible to share the same cloud to do everything and not evolve our notions and powers of sharing.

Socialism 2.0. The cloud is a collective. Social media is a type of socialism. Open source software projects are kinds of communitarian schemes. When people share their medical records (Patients Like Me), or personal genomes (23andme), or their family photo albums — they are feeding a collective because by sharing them, their goods increase in value. The success of Wikipedia, Linux, and the web in general is priming a generation to be open to the power of the group. But unlike the old socialism models of old, the top-down social media of communism, the individuals are not forced to homogenize. Instead in this emerging Socialism 2.0, individuals (anyone can edit the encyclopedia!) are liberated via the power of the group. We don’t have a very good vocabulary for this dynamic right now, so we are stuck using words like socialism which carry a very heavy cultural baggage. Nonetheless, living in the collective cloud will enhance the status of group power.

There must  be many others. If you think of one I haven’t mentioned, please add it in the comments or email.


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